In light of a comment made on another question into sin not in sin

I would like to ask the question, how should one read the passage in psalm 51:5

  • the psalmist was conceived in sin and therefore a sinner by nature
  • the psalmist was conceived into sin and therefore the environment is sinful but he himself is sinless and without a sin nature.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. הן־בעוון חוללתי ובחטא יחמתני אמי


In sin or into sin? Psalm 51:5

Various renderings from our translators of Psalm 51:5

NASB : 5 "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived

NET : 5 "Look, I was guilty of sin from birth, a sinner the moment my mother conceived me."

NRSV : 5" Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me."

David is telling us that he was born in sin because his parents were sinful , born in sin since all of Adam’s offspring have inherited sin and its consequence of death. David was not referring to any specific sin of his mother.

Job 14:4 (NET Bible)

4 "Who can make a clean thing come from an unclean? No one!"

Romans 3:23 (NASB)

23 "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

Romans 5:12 (NET Bible)

12 "So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned."


The psalmist was conceived in sin and therefore a sinner by nature

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  • Not quite what I was looking for though obviously I agree with you – Nihil Sine Deo Nov 7 '19 at 20:39

Neither "in sin" not "into sin" is good translation. The correct interpretation of the verse is apparently "from conception, from the womb, I already sinned", or more colloquially, "from the get-go I sinned". The adverb "already" is implied after the prepositional phrases בעוון and בחטא but is omitted for brevity.

It is difficult to back-read "original sin" into the OT. In order to do so, you would need to:

  1. Ignore the fact that there is no explicit mention or allusion to it in the OT
  2. Ignore the fact that "original sin" is an abstract doctrine regarding the nature of man and sin whereas the OT was written in an age an culture that was not familiar with or concerned with this type of abstract thinking
  3. Ignore the fact that the OT is not about the individual's relationship with God but primarily about the relationship of God to a collective, Israel, to which the the idea of "original sin" doesn't apply
  4. Ignore specific references against transference of guilt such as Deuteronomy 24:16 and Jeremiah 31:29-30
  5. Ignore the numerous verses implying respect for parents in the OT. It would be unthinkable in the OT world for someone, particularly David, to impugn his parents at all and particularly not for the act of conceiving him. Note that in reference to Solomon, there is no reference to the sin of his father in Solomon's conception although there clearly was.

In Psalm 51 specifically you need to read verse 5 (Masoretic verse 7) completely against of the thematic context of the Psalm in order to read it as "born in sin and therefore a sinner by nature". This reading would be tantamount to a denial of the personal responsibility that this Psalm is about. The writer isn't saying "God, what do you want from me, I am a sinner by nature", on the contrary, the writer is taking responsibility for what he has done and asking to be purified from sin (next verse), a possibility that contradicts the idea of "original sin".

So what does verse 5 actually say? Fortunately the more responsible modern translators such as NIV, Christian Standard Bible, Contemporary English Version, Good News Translation, Holman Christian Standard Bible, NET Bible, GOD'S WORD Translation, and the NRSV recognize the problem of translating as "born in iniquity" in view of the post-OT novelty "original sin", and therefore they translate contextually to the effect of "Even from the time of conception, in the womb I was a sinner". It is clear from the context of the previous verses that the writer is confessing his own sins only, and in forceful terms, and that verse 5, the final verse of the confession, is an exaggeration that expresses the writers feeling of remorse for his sins. This is an allusion to the idea that the defining characteristics of individuals is sometimes apparent from conception and in the womb, as in the stories of the birth of Jacob and Peretz in the book of Genesis. In this verse, the writer implicitly but starkly contrasts his own character with those giants of previous generations.

The use of "from the womb" imagery is a recurring OT theme. Apart from the stories of Peretz, Jacob and Esau mentioned above, we see this theme also in the birth stories of Samson and Samuel.

Regarding the Masoretic Hebrew for this verse, the poetic style, being that it is poetic, allows for reading the verse either as "in sin my mother conceived me" or as "even when my mother conceived me I sinned". However, the context of this Psalm, the prevalence of the "from the womb" themes in the OT, and the respect given to parents and previous generations in the OT rule out the reading that implies that the writer is saying that his parents sinned in conceiving him or that previous generations sinned, or that the he is disavowing his own responsibility in any way.

Curiously, the idea of "original sin" was not exclusively Christian. It also appears in some of the medieval Jewish commentators on this verse, such as the Ibn Ezra, who sees in this verse a "hint" that the author is referring to the fact that Eve only gave birth after she sinned. There is no parallel idea in Islam.

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  • You quoted/said "Even from the time of conception, in the womb I was a sinner" what did a zygote do to be a sinner? Other than exist maybe. Conception is at the very beginning. Hence I don’t understand what point you are trying to make that it was his own sins that he was confessing. Personal God not relevant? Israel doesn’t happen until Moses but God calls Himself as the God of individuals Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I have noticed a reoccurring theme in your answers, poetry is exaggeration but that’s just your opinion. Because poetry is not all exaggeration and doesn’t have to be. – Nihil Sine Deo Nov 10 '19 at 2:01
  • Thank you for your response. I will think on your response. – Nihil Sine Deo Nov 10 '19 at 2:02
  • @NihilSineDeo "what did a zygote do...?" Psalms are ''poetry''. There is a lot of poetic license. If you read at face value you get contradictions and absurdities. This verse is exaggeration. The author is so sincere in admitting transgression that he admits transgressions that everyone knows he couldn't have committed. But the intent is not literal. The intent is to express unequivocal acceptance of guilt. This type of exaggeration is common in the OT and in the literature of the ancient middle east in general. Read the OT in the historical and literary context in which it was written. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Nov 11 '19 at 8:39
  • I don’t know what to make of your comment. Your last sentence in the answer tells me you might be moslem but Moslems believe in the writings of the Book. And what you’re describing is not a corruption of the text but a deliberate composition style that is deceptive/exaggeration/lies. I’m going to go with, you don’t believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures and thus your paradigm colors your interpretations as such. You cannot accept what the text says because it doesn’t align with your worldview, so you claim it’s exaggeration. I guess this is one of the charms of this stack’s format. – Nihil Sine Deo Nov 11 '19 at 13:57
  • @NihilSineDeo See Wikipedia article on "original sin". It shows that the idea is post biblical, even post NT, and was not widely accepted at first. It only gained traction with the Protestant movement. The original Christians did not have this concept. I added more examples of "from the womb" imagery to the post, re Samson and Samuel. Psalms are written in a compressed, shorthand style. Correct understanding of many them requires knowledge of the cultural context which has been lost. These ambiguities in the MT text are hard to translate and usually aren't expressed well in the translations. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Nov 14 '19 at 6:00

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